Tense calm holds in south as both sides threaten return to violence
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Tense calm holds in south as both sides threaten return to violence

Netanyahu and Bennett warn of major operation if fighting starts again; Palestinian Islamic Jihad group vows revenge after Israeli airstrike kills 2 of its members in Syria

Iron Dome anti-missile batteries installed in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, November 12, 2019 (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)
Iron Dome anti-missile batteries installed in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, November 12, 2019 (Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash90)

A tense calm held on Israel’s southern border Monday morning, after both Israel and the Islamic Jihad terror group threatened to escalate violence after a flare-up saw intense rocket fire on towns in the south and Israeli reprisal fire in Gaza and Syria.

Abu Hamza, a spokesperson for the Al-Quds Brigade, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad military wing, said Monday that Israel’s strikes on Damascus “will not pass fleetingly,” adding: “The fight is not over.”

The IDF on Sunday night and Monday morning launched retaliatory airstrikes on Palestinian Islamic Jihad sites in both Syria and the Gaza Strip in response to some 30 rocket attacks by the Iran-backed terror group throughout the evening, the military said.

Two members of Islamic Jihad were killed in Syria, according to the group. Another four pro-Iran militia members were also killed in the strikes, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

Both Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened Monday that Israel could begin a major operation to stem rocket fire and other attacks on Israeli communities near the Gaza border, despite elections a week away.

“We are preparing a plan to fundamentally change the situation in the Gaza Strip,” Bennett told a conference in Jerusalem. “I really understand the situation of the people of the south. They deserve peace and security.”

Netanyahu told Radio Jerusalem that he “will not compromise Israel’s security for political reasons.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting at the Health Ministry in Tel Aviv on February 23, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“War is a last resort, but there may be no escape from it. We’ve prepared a radically different campaign,” Netanyahu said.

“If Israel is in the position of entering a large-scale military operation, we will have to deal a bigger blow than [operations] Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge. It could very well be that we may have to carry out — I don’t really want to say it, but — ‘the mother of all operations.'”

It was unclear if the calm was the result of international efforts to mediate a ceasefire, or if the Hamas terror group, the de facto ruler in the Strip, had muzzled Islamic Jihad’s ability to respond, amid ongoing talks with Israel for a long-term arrangement that would see a blockade on the Strip eased significantly.

Though Hamas has stayed out of the fighting, a report on Israel’s Army Radio indicated that Israel was prepared to strike the terror group as well as Islamic Jihad if fighting renewed.

In announcing the airstrikes on Islamic Jihad targets, the IDF notably did not mention Hamas, with which Israel hopes to negotiate a ceasefire agreement. In the past, Israel held Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from the Strip, regardless of which terror group was behind it. However, the IDF has latterly begun to distinguish between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which Israel believes is responsible for the majority of the violence along the Gaza border in recent months.

Though the fighting died down in the early hours of Monday morning, the IDF Home Front Command issued a series of precautionary directives for southern Israel in case of renewed fighting throughout the day, closing schools, banning large outdoor gatherings, blocking roads and halting train service.

A picture taken on February 23, 2020, shows Israeli interception missiles from the Iron Dome defense system, intercepting rockets fired by Palestinian terrorists over Gaza City. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Throughout Sunday evening, some 30 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, approximately half of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. The rest appeared to have landed in open areas. Some shrapnel caused light property damage, but no injuries were reported.

The rocket fire came after an irregular clash along the Gaza border earlier Sunday in which Israeli troops shot dead a member Palestinian Islamic Jihad as he planted an improvised explosive device along the border. The Israeli military then retrieved his body, using a bulldozer.

The retrieval of the corpse was apparently part of Bennett’s announced plan to “hoard” the corpses of Palestinian terrorists in order to use them as “bargaining chips” in negotiations for the release of two Israeli men, and the remains of two fallen Israeli soldiers, who are being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The smoke trail of a rocket, fired by Palestinian terrorists, flying over the Gaza Strip, on February 23, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Islamic Jihad took responsibility for Sunday’s rocket attacks, writing on its website that it fired the rockets in response to Israel having taken the terrorist operative’s corpse earlier in the day.

The border clashes come amid reports of ongoing efforts by Israel to broker a ceasefire agreement with Gaza terror groups, following weeks of intermittent rocket fire and the regular launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into Israel.

The IDF said the strikes in Syria and Gaza were in response to both Sunday morning’s attempted IED attack and the rocket fire throughout the evening.

In November, Israel fought a punishing two-day battle with the Islamic Jihad, sparked by the IDF killing one of the terror group’s leaders — Baha Abu al-Ata — whom Israel believed was responsible for most of the group’s aggressive actions.

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